<%@LANGUAGE="JAVASCRIPT" CODEPAGE="65001"%> Buell Public Campaign Finance Reform: What's At Stake

John Buell

Public Campaign Finance Reform: What’s at Stake

Recent Supreme Court decisions make it imperative that we limit the ability of the wealthiest citizens and large corporations to exert disproportionate control of our politics. Reform agendas must inspire enough grass roots activism to override the substantial inertia and overt resistance built into our political economy. They must also be relatively likely to pass muster within the Supreme Court’s unfortunately narrow guidelines. The first part of that task is reminding citizens how much is at stake. It’s also important to remind citizens that, even in the wake of recent setbacks in the courts, all is not lost. Solutions do exist, but they will only be passed and implemented when and if citizens take the lead.

The current campaign finance system allows the wealthy to invest in politics in much the same way hedge fund managers and venture capital firms invest in new business operations. They seek to purchase legislators and regulators who will increase the returns to their bottom lines. As David Cay Johnson, a long-time student of inequality, points out, thus far they have been able to reap large returns on their investments. This process has continued over a generation and is in large measure responsible for a tax code that disproportionately favors the rich. In addition, wealthy investors can take credit for the deregulation, near catastrophic collapse, and subsequent tax payer bailout of the financial system. Most citizens realize today that government policy, whether it be taxation, regulations, fiscal policy, or trade deals, are skewed to the rich. What is less apparent is that enforcement/ non enforcement/ of even progressive laws favors the most wealthy and powerful. Mortgage fraud, securities violations, and currency manipulation are at most treated as civil offenses for which only token fines are levied. Thus Eric Holder admits he must forego prosecution of the big investment because such litigation would destabilize the whole financial system. He is really saying that these institutions trump our democratic values.

If the current situation is bad, there are reasons to worry that it may become more dire. Our environment, our political system, and our economy are co-evolving in ways that threaten our survival. Global climate — an issue that is itself drenched in big money — is permeated with a series of dangerous feedback loops. Global warming leads to the meltdown of the arctic icecaps, which in turn reduces the capacity of the icecaps to reflect sunlight back into space, thereby intensifying global warming. As the wealthy make further investments in politics, they reap ever larger tax breaks and bailouts and more egregious deregulation and nonenforcement of both environmental and financial laws. These trends and accompanying crises are likely only to enable further consolidation of power. The five largest investment banks controlled 50% of bank deposits before the crash of 2008. Today that percentage is 60%. Just as dangerously, they continue the same process of shaky and highly leveraged derivatives in the full confidence that we, the taxpayers, will bail them out.

This political evolution has cultural consequences that further these trends. Citizens lose faith in government, which in a dangerous paradox further encourages the flight to deregulation, underfunding of key infrastructure, thereby confirming the sense that government “can’t do anything right.” Resulting economic dislocations often issue in periodic demonization of minority groups and a politics of right and left wing extremism.

Nonetheless, this scenario does not have to be our fate. In my home state of Maine citizens have begun a major push to counter the forces of big money. The Clean Elections Initiative strengthens Clean Elections, increases transparency, and bolsters accountability. This initiative would fully fund Maine Clean Elections, funds for which had been cut by the legislature, by closing corporate tax loopholes. It would eliminate “dark money” by requiring full disclosure of sources of political advertising. Finally, the initiative would expand public financing for Clean Election candidates facing well healed opponents based not merely on the level of their opponent’s expenditure but also, crucially, upon proof of broader citizens interest. (Candidates in Maine qualify for public financing by collecting a specified number of $5 citizen contributions. If their opponent spends beyond an initial limit, the public financing would be increased by solicitation of more $5 contributions. )

This initiative has a good chance of surviving court challenges. Public campaign financing has been popular in Maine, with many candidates from both parties running under its banner.

By building upon the popularity of Maine’s clean elections system, seeking signatures for an initiative to strengthen it, and pursuing more citizen support for candidates facing high private spending we forge democratic alternatives to the dangerous politics of the present. Maine has been a national leader in pursuit of democratic electoral reform and passage of this initiative could encourage similar initiatives elsewhere.

John Buell lives in Southwest Harbor, Maine, and writes regularly on labor and environmental issues. Email jbuell@acadia.net.

From The Progressive Populist, October 1, 2014


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